I didn't really know "Marlene" all that well, we shared a couple classes at our small-town high school and both worked as candystriper volunteers at the local hospital. Although raised in a middle-class family, my friends and acquaintances tended to come from blue-collar families. I related to life in their homes better than I did to my own, where things were so concerned with maintaining image and keeping up with the Joneses.
I remember the Saturday afternoon clearly, a call from Marlene telling me thru tears that she had ingested a large quantity of aspirin and was now afraid, and having second thoughts about her intention to die. I had no idea until then how bad things were for her. She'd been walking around school with her arm and shoulder in a cast for months, the result of an injury sustained while struggling with an old clothes washer, or so she'd said. People didn't talk about other, darker realities back then. If there were secrets in the house, they kept them to themselves... until the day she reached out to me.
Turning to my mom for help, I got the usual admonition... "don't get involved, call the authorities". Thanks for understanding mom.... not. Instead I called my mentor/friend, the school nurse who also served as the coordinator for the candystriper program. Telling her what was happening with Marlene, who lived several miles out in the country, she jumped quickly in her car and headed that way while alerting the hospital of the emergency situation.
Marlene was brought to the hospital is serious condition, her body fighting to function despite the deadly does of aspirin. After she got thru the initial 24-hour period and her body began to stabilize, they let me in to see her. I brought her a pretty nightgown and soft robe, things she'd probably never had before. She wouldn't say exactly what had happened, to me or to the doctors, but she told me she wasn't going back there, back to where her step-father ruled the family with a angry hand. There was more, I knew it as well as she did, but it didn't matter. Her sense of shame and humiliation was too great to tell anyone how it really was.
My father was most unhappy that I somehow found myself a part of this, with rumor and gossip swirling in the school and small town. Everyone wanted to know what I knew about the situation... had she really tried to kill herself, and why? "Don't get involved" he admonished as I railed against our community's lack of compassion and understanding. "This is a bad situation and we don't need any part of it."
"Don't get involved" was my father's mantra, "don't get involved, you might get hurt." I understand that in his own way he was trying to protect us, to shield us from the harsh realities of life, but I saw it then, and still now, as a reluctance to take a public stand against things that were wrong. In some ways that shaped my determination to be different, to be one who was willing to speak out.
Back then things such as mental health units or in-patient counseling didn't exist in our community. A few days in the hospital and Marlene was released to the care of Social Services, who placed her with a single teacher for awhile. From there she bounced to living with a mom and kids in a small apartment, the only person they could find that was willing to take her in, and then to another home. She kept to herself when she returned to school, but seemed to be ok. She graduated high school and eventually became a full time nurse's aide working at the same hospital in our town. We didn't stay in touch after high school but I think of her now and then, and wonder if she is happy and how her life has played out.
Several years later, while visiting with my Dad on the phone, he mentioned that Marlene's step-father had died. Then he said something that took me totally by surprise, something I'd never heard him say before... "That son-of-a-bitch deserved to die, abusing those girls like that."
He knew! He had known all along, and if he knew, then his friends who were also members of the business community knew. And yet all those years ago no one said anything, no one spoke out, no one reached out to help, no justice was handed down. Yes, he deserved to die, and I hope it was slow, painful death. May God have mercy on his soul.
This post is linked up at Two Shoes Tuesday